history

Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the BardoLincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Lincoln in the Bardo is a good book — but you have to be ready for it. George Saunders has taken a novel and made it just that, novel. It’s part poem, part history text and entirely complicated and moving at the same time. Readers need to prepared for the odd writing style, the numerous characters, and the constantly changing voices. However, if given the chance, the book is phenomenal.

Let’s talk premise first: Lincoln in the Bardo takes place over the course of one heart-wrenching night following the burial of William Wallace Lincoln, President Abraham Lincoln’s third, and favorite, son. Willie died suddenly of typhoid fever just as the Civil War is ramping up in the United States. The story takes place “in the Bardo” which is a Buddhist term for the space between life and death, essentially the purgatory of the Christian world. Over the course of the night, many spirits appear to help young Willie on his new venture into the afterlife and we hear how each ghost ended up in their current state, some are luckier than others. In between conversations in the cemetery, Saunders intersperses actual bits of history from contemporary sources who recount the events leading up to Willie’s death. The overall narrative is alternatively emotional and humorous.

Here’s where things get tricky. The form. This isn’t your typical novel written with sentences that build paragraphs that turn into a book. Rather, it reads more like a screenplay with the character announced in italics followed by their lines in the next below. Historical sources are cited appropriately often reading as follows:

“The rich notes of the Marine Band in the apartments below came to the sick-room in soft, subdued murmurs, like the wild, faint sobbing of far off spirits.” Keckley, op. cit.

It’s a very avant-garde style of writing that makes the book difficult to follow. I found myself wondering “who’s that guy again?” or “wait — how did he die?” Towards the end of the book things start to get a little bit muddled as the narrative veers into the reflective and meditative and I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about that.

Overall, the book was worth the confusion because it made me think and it threw me out of my comfort zone. I can’t recommend this book enough (with the disclaimer that it’s really not going to be everyone’s cup of tea).

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Book Review: Ticker

Ticker: The Quest to Create an Artificial HeartTicker: The Quest to Create an Artificial Heart by Mimi Swartz

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“The person who comes up with a way to replace a failing heart with an artificial one, then, will save countless lives and change the future of humankind, much as Louis Pasteur or Sigmund Freud did, or Jonas Salk or Marie Curie. And, of course, the doctor or engineer (or, more likely, the team) who figures out how to make one will likely become very, very rich.”

This is what we are presented with in Ticker: The Quest to Create an Artificial Heart by Mimi Swartz. The book tells the sordid history of a group of surgeons all vying to become the god-like creator of the first artificial heart. Swartz is a stunning and detailed researcher and the book flows well throughout the decades. She starts with the birth of Michael Debakey and Denton Cooley as the “bad boys: of cardiac surgery in Houston. From there, Swartz takes the reader on the stunning and sometimes vaguely unethical battle to be the best, to beat the competition, and to cash in for as much money as humanly possible. My only disappointment is that the book just seemed to end with no conclusion. That could be due to the unfinished tale of the artificial heart but it still could have wrapped up a bit better in my opinion.

I had some knowledge going into the book as my husband’s uncle was on the ground floor of Baylor’s race to be the best in cardiac care but much of the information was new to me. Readers who have grown up in Houston will know the cast of characters and possibly even the history of the cardiac teams that come into play. This book is not for the faint of heart, however. These are real people that have been used as guinea pigs and sometimes, that’s disheartening and upsetting. Know going into it that the early days of heart surgery were akin to the Wild West and not everyone was on the up-and-up.

*I received an advanced copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.*

Book Review: Patient H.M.

Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family SecretsPatient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was nothing short of amazing. I’m extremely interested in neuroscience and the history of the lobotomy — this book was the perfect intersection. Having read several books on memory and lobotomies, I was already familiar with the case of H.M. but this book explored who H.M. was as a person which was never allowed to enter into the scientific case studies.

Author Luke Dittrich writes from a very personal place since it was his own grandfather, Dr. Scoville, who performed the lobotomy on Patient H.M. and so many others, including his severely ill wife. In that sense, Dittrich often comes across at angry and occasionally petulant in his desire to defend all the good that his grandfather did while also mourning the horrors inflicted on unsuspecting patients.

This book is also raises important questions regarding medical and scientific ethics. The woman “in charge” of H.M.’s care during the final years of his life, was the woman whose career exploded into the limelight thanks to her research on H.M.. She also assigned H.M.’s guardian who was a man who was not at all invested in his care. This “scientist” closely guarded her own research and access to H.M. to keep others from learning more about the enigmatic patient. Dittrich also brought to light the possibility that research data might have been falsified. However, we’ll never know since she destroyed nearly all the records and test data prior to her death.

As an avid reader of science and history books, this was a wonderful read. Dittrich brings in enough science to keep those in the field engaged but he also makes it approachable for the causal reader. Writing from a very personal space, Dittrich brings to life the wonderful man known to most only as H.M.. Dittrich balances his disdain for his grandfather’s procedures with facts, figures, and light-hearted tales of growing up as Dr. Scoville’s grandson. Patient H.M. is an important tale of science gone awry and the dangers of being on the bleeding edge of medicine.